The Leader in Scanner and Shortwave Communications

Getting Started in SW Listening - Part I

By Ken Reitz, MT Beginner's Corner

            What if I told you there was an inexpensive wireless plastic box which could give you the latest news 24/7, in dozens of languages, in real time, and do it for free? Would you be interested? Forget about your cable news networks, fancy satellite TV systems, on-line news sources and the hundreds of dollars and monthly fees they represent, because I’m talking about shortwave radio.

            Using 70 year old technology, international shortwave broadcasters beam a steady stream of news, information and music to hundreds of millions of listeners the world over every day. Because of the nature of the shortwave bands anyone can listen to nearly every nation’s voice using the simplest of receivers no matter where they live. But, before you can join in you’ll need to know what kind of shortwave radio is best for you to buy. So, let’s go shopping!

 How to Buy a Shortwave Radio

            Recent world events have made shortwave radios more popular than ever and units have been flying off retailers' shelves. Consumers are confronted with a wide array of shortwave radios from $39 to over $6,000 and, unless you're shopping for price alone, it may not be clear which one to buy. In general, shortwave radios can be classified into price groupings: under $100, $100-400, $400-900, and $900 and up. Let’s take a look at the under $100 group first.

            This group represents the bulk of shortwave radio sales. They are turned out by their Chinese manufacturers and sold worldwide by the millions each year. Still, thanks to advances in electronic circuitry, amazing reception can be had for very little cost. As I’m writing this, I’m listening a Radio Shack bottom of the line Realistic DX-350 which measures just 7" x 4.5", less than an inch and a half thick, and with a telescoping whip antenna less than 2 feet long. The radio sits next to the computer, which generates a great deal of radio frequency interference (RFI), and yet this diminutive radio brings in all the major international broadcasters with excellent signals and good audio without any strain on the ears. And, in a portable mode with moderate use, this radio will run for months on four “AA” batteries. What more could I want?

            Well, for starters the 2" x 2" analog tuning dial is hard to read and trying to locate a specific frequency on the dial is mostly a matter of guessing. There are also gaps in the tuning ranges which don’t allow listening in between the bands listed on the dial. Further, there’s no single sideband (SSB) button in order to tune in amateur radio operators or digital modes such as weather facsimile (WEFAX) or radioteletype (RTTY).

            That brings us to the $100-400 range. The most obvious difference is the addition of digital tuning. On these radios, tuning is done by pressing buttons on a numeric keypad. The tuned frequency is displayed on an easy-to-read liquid crystal display (LCD) panel. But, the real power of the microchip is the ability to store items in memory. These sets typically feature 40-50 memory presets, with some radios having room for as many as 300. Casual shortwave listeners will probably be hard-pressed to store more than 40 frequencies in memory.

            Among the other amenities in this group are the addition of SSB reception, continuous tuning without gaps in frequency, cassette recorder output jack, and built-in clock with timer and on/off functions. Some units in this price group actually have built-in cassette recorders which, when used in conjunction with the timers, can record broadcasts while you’re sleeping. A bargain among this group is the Sangean ATS505P which includes keypad tuning, digital display, continuous tuning (540 kHz to 30 MHz as well as the commercial FM band), SSB reception, and an external power supply for $130.

            There are some drawbacks to this group as well. The extra options, microprocessor, and bigger audio section requires more power, and these units will typically use eight “AA” or four “C” batteries and may not run nearly so long as the cheaper analog radios. These units are considerably larger and weigh from 2 to 4 pounds, a consideration when hiking or camping.

            The $400-900 group is where the serious shortwave listening equipment comes in. While there are some portables in this group, most are desk top radios known as communications receivers. This is also where you'll find the new computer-based receivers.

            Among the amenities are external antenna connectors, extended RF spectrum coverage (often into the Ultra UHF range), advanced tuning modes (including narrow and wide bandwidth selections), as many as 1,000 memory presets, computer connections for importing data, and actual signal strength meters. These receivers typically feature frequency tuning by both keypad and manual tuning knob.

            There are few drawbacks to this group as well. You should know that most do not feature a built-in antenna and will require an external (outdoor) antenna for optimal reception. They also have a large desk-top footprint -- typically 9" x 9" -- and weigh 6 to 10 pounds.

            The last group, $900 and up, is for government agencies and SWL enthusiasts who simply must have the best equipment available. With frequency ranges to 3 Gigahertz (GHz) these are all-band all-mode receivers which feature multiple antenna connections, RS-232 ports for computer interfacing, built-in noise filtering, extraordinary bandwidth filters and more. These super-sensitive receivers will tune in just about anything transmitted on the HF spectrum. Their all-mode capability at higher frequencies make them good candidates for monitoring polar orbiting satellites. Again, in this group you’ll need external antennas, and, for satellite reception, special tracking antennas will also be required.

Buying New – Buying Used

            The biggest advantage of buying a new radio is the warranty. If something goes wrong with your unit it can be repaired or replaced free of charge. Used radios, particularly when buying through private parties, carry no such warranty. However, most commercial companies dealing in used shortwave equipment such as Grove, Universal Radio, Amateur Electronic Supply and others include at least a 30 day warranty with their used gear.

            There’s a considerable market in used shortwave radios and some are worth looking at more closely. Anything in the under $100 category is probably not worth buying. These units are built very cheaply and the first thing to go is usually the antenna. Finding a replacement antenna which works for such a radio may not be worth the effort. Plastic knobs are sometimes missing or broken, analog tuning dials may be stuck or non-functioning. Unless someone is giving away the radio, you’re better off buying new in this category.

            Bargains in the next category can easily be had. The reasons for this are that radios in this category are usually made better, consumers tend to take better care of more expensive items, and these radios are often sold by SWL enthusiasts who are trading up for better radios and are anxious to preserve their resale value. Look for widely sold brands with longevity, such as Sony, Sangean, and Grundig. In the event your radio needs repair it’s easy to send it away for factory authorized service. These particular brands tend to hold their value and you’ll have little trouble selling your unit when you decide to trade up.

            Great values in the $400-$900 group can also be had with a little looking. The production quality of these radios is very high and they’re not generally susceptible to obvious wear and tear. Most catalog retailers take this group in on trade-in all the time, typically cleaning them up and making certain that they are performing properly. Lists of used equipment can usually be found at the retail websites and occasionally in their catalogs. But, used radios are in short supply and move quickly off the shelves. If you see one that you’ve been looking for, it may not be there long.

 Other Shortwave Radios of Note

            If you’ve spent any time at all looking for shortwave radios you’ll have noticed quite a few in discount catalogs and various retail stores. Sometimes real bargains can be had. I’ve seen one big name portable shortwave radio which regularly sells for $200 in the shortwave catalogs selling for $100 in one such discount catalog. Keep your eyes open and know what you’re seeing!

            Also, make sure from the catalog retailer that the item pictured in the catalog is actually what you’re buying.

            Another type of receiver is the “Vintage Recreation.” These are usually multi-band radios recently manufactured to look like vintage radio sets. The cases are usually plastic and the receivers are simple solid state boards used in many other models. The idea is to evoke the era of the tube radio with classic design of the ‘30s and ‘40s when radio was king. The resemblance, however, ends at the visual appeal. These radios should be purchased as decorative items only whose value is not likely to increase. One case in point is the Grundig Classic 960 anniversary edition, which was to celebrate the old ‘50s Grundig standard of table top shortwave radios with the fabled Grundig sound. Unfortunately, the resemblance ended as soon as the set was turned on. The original sets which sold in the late ‘90s for $400 can be found in discount catalogs for $100.

            If you’re really interested in vintage shortwave radio listening, there are tens of thousands of genuine period shortwave radios from the ‘30s and ‘40s in excellent operating condition which can be had for a reasonable price. Browse the usual web auction sites and look for these old sets at ham fests. Real working vintage shortwave receivers can be found from $100 to $200. They’re a real joy to listen to and make great additions to your listening post.

 Next Time:

            In the next installment I’ll cover where to tune, when to tune, how to tell time, and what those strong signals with strange sounds are which are found all over the shortwave bands.